Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Marshmallows, Money and Middle-class Morals

A K Haart today has a post about the Marshmallow Test, designed to assess a child's ability to resist immediate gratification for a deferred reward. Although he is actually making a thought-provoking point about the role of the observer, the experiment's test of the power of self-restraint is not far removed from this week's news.

I have already argued that many of the looters were not suffering from material deprivation - the fact that they communicated on Blackberries being one example - and in fact had an abundance of consumer goods already. Even so, confronted with a broken shop window and the cornucopia inside, the prospect of immediate gratification proved an overwhelming one.

Some of those convicted - the ones who 'couldn't sleep' for remorse - claimed this was a momentary aberration; it was only the sight of the goods lying there for the taking that prompted them to steal, even though they knew it was wrong and would never normally behave that way.

Pavlov's Cat - my usual point of reference for matters Japanese - recounts the tale of a friend who dropped a large denomination banknote in a busy part of Tokyo and, to his astonishment, recovered it at the local police station where someone had handed it in - standard practice, apparently, in Japan.

This story - appropriately enough - rang a bell. Some years ago, I was talking with a class of 14-year-olds about what constituted stealing. The hypothetical case - based on a class reading book - was a £20 note found on the floor in a shopping centre, and the response of the class varied surprisingly.

From the answers I got, only a few would take it to the police station. Some of the others would hand it in to the nearest shop or the centre staff but the vast majority felt that, if they found it, it was theirs to spend. The original owner had lost it through carelessness and thus forfeited his rights.

Even if they were told they would ultimately receive the note back if it were not claimed, or a reward for finding it, most of them said they would rather keep the note and spend it there and then.

One boy went further; his mother, he said, had actually found £20 on the floor in a local shop a few years before. She took it to the till, changed it for two £10 notes and gave one each to him and his brother to buy toys and sweets (this boy's father, incidentally, was a policeman).

This effectively ended the lesson, which was probably a good thing. It was not long after that that I read an article in which a self-righteous Guardianista declared that teachers should avoid at all costs 'imposing their own middle-class values' on pupils - values such as the idea that helping yourself to other people's property is always wrong - and that schools should henceforth monitor lessons to prevent it happening.

Quite apart from the insulting suggestion that non-middle-class families are incapable of instilling a sense of what constitutes acceptable behaviour in society, there is something frightening about the way honesty and respect for other people's property can be seen as irrelevant to the process of educating future citizens.


  1. I have often been told down the years "You're to honest for your own good"

    When I have passed over opportunities that were, whilst not perhaps illegal, but would be against my own moral code, fiddling expenses, inflating prices because 'the customer can afford it' etc

    This apparently is a 'bad thing'

    Ta for the link

  2. Pavlov's Cat - my usual point of reference for matters Japanese

    He's usually my point of reference for cats.

  3. Cat, the way I see it, if you ask yourself 'Could I live with someone who fiddled expenses, overcharged etc?' and the answer is 'no', then you have no choice but to behave as honestly as you are able, for your own peace of mind.

    Although an atheist, I sometimes feel that the big draw of organised religion is the business of Heaven and Hell, not merely because one expects one's own just reward, but because there is the ineffable satisfaction of knowing that those who do behave badly will eventually get their due come-uppance

    JH, Pavlov's Cat is a mine of interesting information as well as a thoroughly moral chap (see above).

  4. Thanks for passing that on, Cat; I can't say I'm surprised. I look forward to reading your post.